A Will is your instructions about what happens to your things after you die. If you don't have a Will, New York State has rules for dividing your belongings, giving some to your spouse and kids. If none are around, other family members might get a share. If you're not legally married or in a different kind of relationship, your partner likely won't inherit anything under New York's rules.

Without a Will (or some other formal document, such as a power of attorney or a healthcare proxy) a court might decide who takes care of your kids and their stuff, and who makes decisions about their health and wellbeing, if the other parent can't.

What makes a Will valid and legal?

A legal Will is:

  • a written document,
  • saying it is your Will, 
  • dated and signed by you, or by someone signing your name in front of you, 
  • with two witnesses who are not in the Will.

The witnesses don't need to know what's in your Will. They just have to see you sign it and then sign it themselves. You don't need a notary for a Will in New York State.

If someone signs your name for you in front of you, that person has to sign their own name and write down their home address on the Will, as well. This person won’t count as one of your two witnesses.

Do I have to leave something to my spouse and children in my Will?

New York law generally protects spouses and minor children, including adopted children, from being left with nothing. A surviving spouse can go to court to claim a part of your estate.

You may leave nothing to children who are 18 or older. If it seems like you didn't mean to exclude them, they can challenge your Will, too.

Can anyone else challenge my Will after I die?

Yes, but it's rare. To succeed in court, the challenger must prove things like undue influence, forgery, or incompetence during signing. 

Do I need a lawyer to do my Will?

You don't have to hire a lawyer to write your Will. But if you don't follow all the rules for making a Will (i.e. the requirements listed above), it won't be legally valid (it won't work). A lawyer can make sure it's right.  

You can find books at your library or get information online to make a simple Will. Use resources for New York State laws.  For example, the Rural Law Center of New York has a worksheet for writing a Will.

Can I just write out my wishes?

It's risky because a handwritten Will without witnesses is only valid in limited situations in New York. 

Can my Will name a Guardian for my young children and someone to manage their property?

If both parents can't care for minor children, and you would like to choose who will take care for your young children yourself, you need to name a Guardian to look after them and handle their things. In your Will, you and the other parent can choose the same person for both roles or different people for each.

How do I change my Will?

If you want to change your Will, do not just write on the original. This could make your Will invalid (not work). Use a “codicil” for changes. A codicil is an addition or change to your will. The codicil must follow the same rules that make your Will legally valid.

You can also write a new Will that includes all your changes. Get legal help for major changes. 

Where should I keep the Will?

Keep the original of your Will in a safe and easy-to-reach place that your family knows about. A copy usually won't work—the original is needed. If you put it in a safe deposit box, it might take time to open after your death.

Who makes sure that the wishes in my Will are carried out?

An Executor makes sure your wishes in the Will are followed correctly. It's helpful to name an Executor in your Will. You might also name a backup Executor if the first one can't do it.

What life planning documents do I need?

Learn more about different life planning documents, such as:

  • making plans for paying bills and keeping your government benefits
  • having people you trust to make important decisions about your medical care
  • letting doctors know what kind of medical care you want
  • planning where your money and things will go after you pass away
  • planning what will happen to your body after you pass away
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Last Reviewed: April 4, 2024